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Manufactured homes: Not tin cans on wheels
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"In the case of a flood, no structure will do well. But when Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina, it was much easier to reset displaced manufactured homes on their foundations, because the houses were still intact. Site-built homes tend to fall apart when disengaged from their foundations, whereas a factory-built home has to be strong enough to be pulled down the road in one piece at 60 mph."

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According to Wendy Rose, spokeswoman for the Florida-based Institute for Building & Home Safety, newer manufactured homes did well in Hurricane Charley last year.

"If there was an after-market add-on, such as a porch or a carport that wasn't built to the same level of stability," she said, "it would peel off, but otherwise the home would be fine."

So much for flimsy. Now, what about sex appeal? Over the past 30 years, says Savage, design innovations have made factory-built homes virtually indistinguishable from their site-built neighbors.

"There are two-story designs, Cape Cod houses -- you name it," he says. "Tell us what you want, and we can customize it. By the time it's set up on a concrete foundation, you can't tell the difference from site-built."

That's one of the paradoxes of the industry, says Steve Hullibarger, principal of The Home Team, a California-based, manufactured-housing consultancy whose clients are builders, developers, nonprofits and government agencies. Since most people can't spot a well-done manufactured home -- only those done poorly -- old stereotypes are harder to break.

No longer a bad investment
The good news, he says, is that a well-designed, factory-built home on a concrete foundation will appreciate at the same rate as the site-built homes around it. Hullibarger has kept track of the performance of about 1,500 HUD-code, manufactured homes in urban locations in California over the past 25 years.

For example, he says, a home in Silicon Valley with a low-profile foundation and laminated "architectural grade" shingles, appropriate to the area, originally sold for $133,500 in 1982; went for $158,000 in 1986; was sold again in 1988 for $279,000 and had appreciated to $490,000 by its next resale in 1999.

Another home, in Sonoma County, Calif., that had been enhanced with exterior columns, a wainscot of used brick and an exterior fireplace, was bought from the infill developer for $77,900 in 1983; resold for $160,000 in 1989; went for $245,000 a year later in 1990 and brought $336,000 in 2003.

"The market will pay a fair-market price for a house that looks like a house," he says. "If it looks like other houses on the street, it doesn't have to be sold at some kind of a discount. It's been proven over and over again that many homeowners have created wealth in this way."

McCarthy says about a third of factory-built homes hold or increase their value over time.

"One of the most important factors," he says, "is whether the owner has long-term control of the land that the house is sited on. The second-most important determinant is the performance of the market and then appearance -- whether or not those looking at the house see it as a trailer, rather than permanent housing with the look and feel of a site-built home.

 
 
Next: "If you've got good credit you can get financed ... "
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